Along about the Spring of 1968 I was matriculatin’ at the University of Georgia getting a degree in economics, accepted to graduate school with the intention of getting a PhD and becoming the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. That was the plan.
So, on spring break I went down to the local draft board with all my documentation, just as a courtesy to let them know I wouldn’t be doin’ any business with them. Ms. Loretta C. Clayton, the administrator, aka Nurse Cratchit, said “Let me get your file.” Upon review she said, “All deferments have been cancelled due to the Tet Offensive. You will take your physical in May and be drafted in June.” That was not the plan.
Well, you couldn’t get into anything but the Marines so Pop and I made an appointment with the recruiter in Jacksonville. Boy, was he glad to see us! You see their business wasn’t too good along about that time. I was probably about the only kid dumb enough to volunteer for the Marines. I told him I wanted to fly and he was really tickled as they had lost so many pilots. In that case, I would have to take a math test so Capt. Barlow said, “What is seven plus seven?” I thought a minute and answered, “Fifteen?” He turned to the gunnery sergeant and said, “What do you think, Gunny?” He said, “Aw hell, let ‘em in Skipper, he only missed it by two.” I raised my right hand and I was sworn into the United States of America Marine Corps.
They had a six months’ deferment plan for reporting so I opted for that, thinking maybe the war would be over by then. Little Gill was on his way, so I would be home for that blessed event and Christmas. So, I reported to Officers Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia, on Jan. 6, 1969. It was about 20 degrees and the wind was blowin’ about 20 knots off the Potomac. The drill sergeant yelled at me and it hurt my feelings. I began to think, “Gill, ole boy, maybe you didn’t think this thing through as good as you should have.”
Never have I felt so hopeless, forlorn and shipwrecked on the sea of life. The first thing they do is cut off all our hair in order to strip us of our identity so they could remake us into Marines. I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life. There was no way I could make it through this. You see, I didn’t read the fine print of my aviation contract which said that upon graduation from Officers Candidate School, I was guaranteed to go to flight school. But what if I didn’t graduate, would I just go home to my Mama? Nope, I would be sent to Parris Island for basic training, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Then, off to Vietnam as a Pfc. in a rifle company and walking point and fighting the Communist insurgent guerrilla forces in the viper-infested jungles of Southeast Asia.
Well, our platoon commander was a tough “mustang,” that is he was a noncommissioned officer who had received a combat field commission to lieutenant, quite rare and a real honor. The problem was he did not like college graduates or pilots and he assured me that he would see to that I was not going to make it and I believed him. But we had a candidate named Fuller who was kind of awkward and a little overweight and the lieutenant would frequently physically abuse him. So, after two weeks they finally let us call home and he reported all of this to his Daddy in Arizona. Well, his Daddy’s good friend was a guy named Goldwater and the next morning the lieutenant was nowhere to be found and never seen again.
I certainly didn’t think I had a chance of making it through this ordeal but SSgt. McGregor became our Sgt. Instructor, as the drill sergeants were called in OCS. I don’t know what he saw in me but one day he called me aside, “Candidate Audrey (they always call your name wrong to further strip your identity), you’re not going to make it, you are worrying too much about the big things. Focus on the little things, when it’s to shine your boots, shine your boots, when it’s time to clean your rifle, clean your rifle. Take care of the little things and let me worry about the big things.” I found that to apply to many situations in life.
The first six weeks all they tried to do was break us physically or mentally. During that time, we lost over half of our class. Those of us left were destined to become Marines and then things actually began to be fun. Like mail call. If you were the platoon guide, an important position, SSgt. McGregor would stand out in the long hallway and yell, “Guide! Mail call,” and you had about 30 seconds to report. So off down the hall you would run with a stop to do as many pull-ups as the weeks gone by and then report at attention in front of his desk. Then he would yell, “Dummy, this is air mail, how to you think you can get the mail without an airplane? Get out of my sight!”
So, back down the hall, more pull-ups and wait. Pretty soon, “Guide! Mail call.” So back down the hall, more pull-ups, your arms out and making noises like an airplane and back at attention in front of his desk. More “Dummy, how can you land an airplane without air breaks, you just ran me down. Get out of my sight!” So, same thing until finally he yells, “Guide! Mail call!” Same process only this time you make a screeching noise as he hands over the mail. We would form a group and Sgt. Instructor would open each letter and read it aloud to the entire platoon, especially ones with perfume.
Now, of course, I have left out the profanity, lots of profanity, so as not to offend your sensitive ears. How can you have basic training without yelling obscenities at the recruits? Well, believe it or not, the order came down there would be no more profanity. Really? Give me a break. So, we were advised there would be severe consequences if we were caught swearing. Well, we did lots of close order drill and we would chant as we marched. Sgt. Instructor would yell, “I don’t know but I’ve been told.” And we would repeat in unison. “I don’t know but I’ve been told.” Then him, “Eskimo girls are mighty cold.” Then us etc. next the count off, “Sound off, one two etc.” We were so close to graduation that we were encouraged to sound off so one day I let ’er rip, “When apples are red they’re ready for pluckin” Then the other candidates repeated in unison, “When apples are red they’re ready for pluckin” Then me, “Girls out of high school are ready for….” Oops! The Sgt. Instructor glared at me and all the candidates gasped under their breath, “For God’s sake, Autrey, don’t do it, we’re too close to getting’ the hell out of here. “Girls out of high school are ready for college.” Even Sgt. Instructor broke up and so ended close order drill for the day.
At the end of each long day at lights out, he would turn off the lights and say, “Now candidates you will say ‘The Our Father.” And we would repeat after him the Lord’s Prayer and then we would echo, “Goodnight Sgt. Instructor, goodnight Sgt. Instructor’s girlfriend, goodnight Chesty Puller (most famous Marine ever) wherever you are.” Last, SSgt. McGregor would say “Good night Candidates.” Then darkness and silence.
The day finally came when we pinned on our gold bars and became Marine Officers. First order of business was to line up single file in front of SSgt. McGregor to receive our first salute as an officer from our Sgt. Instructor. You look straight ahead, return a snappy salute and hand over a shiny silver dollar which he pocketed. Two things you better not do, say anything or tear up. Both were difficult. Three things I knew that day, God loved me, my Mama loved me and SSgt. McGregor loved us. Many of us would not survive what we were facing but SSgt. McGregor knew and we knew he had done all he could to prepare us. He was proud of us, we were his creation.
In the end, we didn’t fight for God and Country or Mom and Apple Pie. We fought for each other.
Now, when I lay my head down at night I say, “Good night Sgt. Instructor, good night Sgt. Instructor’s girlfriend, good night Lane, good night Chesty Puller wherever you are.” Then I say “The Our Father.”
John 15:13 13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Happy Memorial Day!